The study of language

The study of language. 4th edn. By George Yule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xvii, 320. ISBN 9780521749220. $29.99.

Reviewed by Daniel W. Hieber, Rosetta Stone

The newest edition of George Yule’s widely-used textbook remains an excellent introduction to linguistics. In contrast to the data-driven, hands-on approach of such texts as Language files (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2007), this book focuses on the conceptual. Chapters are typically organized around important terminology, so that each term receives its own section, and the table of contents resembles a vocabulary list. Y briefly explains each concept without too much detail, and his writing is lucid, concise, and easy to read.

The book begins with chapters on language origins (Ch. 1) and primate communication (Ch. 2), including a discussion of the defining properties of language. Y then moves into the core of linguistics: phonetics (Ch. 3), phonology (Ch. 4), morphology (Ch. 6), syntax (Ch. 8), semantics (Ch. 9), and pragmatics (Ch. 10). He includes chapters on prescriptivism and traditional grammar (Ch. 7) and word-formation and neologisms (Ch. 5).

The second half of the book covers other major subfields in linguistics, including discourse analysis (Ch. 11), neurolinguistics (Ch. 12), first and second language acquisition (Chs. 13–14), sign language (Ch. 15), orthography (Ch. 16), and diachronic linguistics (Ch. 17). Coverage of sociolinguistics includes separate chapters on regional variation (Ch. 18) and social variation (Ch. 19), and the final chapter discusses language, culture, and linguistic relativity (Ch. 20). Each chapter includes study questions, tasks, discussion topics, and topically arranged lists of sources for further reading.

This edition includes a number of improvements, most notably replacing the appendix with a freely downloadable ninety-seven-page online study guide that gives interesting in-depth answers to all of the study questions and tasks in the book, with fully-cited sources. The website also includes all figures and illustrations, which most instructors should find useful.

This edition is better organized than its predecessors into sections and subsections, and it gives greater emphasis to data analysis. There are twenty new sections and fifty new end-of-chapter tasks, including expanded discussions of language origins, text messaging, and kinship terminology. The expanded tasks are an excellent launching point for further investigation and term papers, challenging the student to consult outside sources and conduct independent research.

Lamentably, this edition lacks any discussion of linguistic typology or language endangerment, and the chapter on syntax limits itself to phrase structure rules and basic generative syntax. Interestingly, Ch. 2 fails to discuss recursion as a property of language. Finally, by avoiding broader theoretical questions (e.g. do language universals exist?), the book remains practical enough for an introductory class.

Overall, this textbook is an excellent overview of the central topics in linguistics and how linguists study language, and this edition is a notable improvement over previous ones. The student will come away from it with a solid understanding of basic linguistic terminology and an appreciation for the breadth of topics that linguistics has to offer.